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Playing with fire: What the Kolkata inferno means

By Sunanda K Datta-Ray
Last updated on: March 29, 2010 13:49 IST
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The Indonesian phrase Semunya bisa diatur - Everything can be arranged - comes to mind as I read of the factors that helped to transform Calcutta's Stephen Court into a towering inferno. Clearly, there's nothing money can't buy. This is the compelling impetus of the tradesmen who have taken over Calcutta. This is still a city that thinks today what Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi and other Indian cities will think tomorrow, but those thoughts are obsessively focused on maximising profits, never mind that the cost is in precious human lives.

Development and re-development are the pernicious mantras of the new breed of businessmen whose driving purpose is - lapsing into American jargon - to make a fast buck. That was not the way with Stephen Arathoon, one of Calcutta's Armenian pioneers, who built a grand mansion at the corner of Park Street and Middleton Row. Arathoon was long dead when two new stories were added to his mansion in 1984. By then, many of Stephen Court's wide corridors and expansive rooms had been partitioned and repartitioned into tiny wooden cubicles, the broad stairs were piled high with filth. The additional two floors were an eyesore, destroying the pillared grandeur of a classical facade. Worse, they were illegal. The corporation objected but Semunya bisa diatur, it agreed, on payment of a penalty, to "regularise" the new floors. No doubt some of the penalty money stuck to the fingers of the hands through which it passed and which sanctioned or signed the regularisation order. But legality doesn't mean safety.

No one really established whether the old building's ancient foundations could support two new floors. No one bothered that the additional structure's narrow stairs and rabbit warren of rooms - maximising the use of space to generate profit - were a health hazard. That wasn't all. Like all self-respecting buildings of that age, Stephen Court had spiral staircases at the back. They were intended for jemadars to sweep and swap bathrooms in a more gracious age. They were also an escape route in case of fire or other danger. The old spirals served only the first five floors. The contractor or promoter (terms that are becoming synonymous with criminal as our cities sprawl out and thrust upwards) didn't bother extending the stairs to the two new floors. To do so would have cost money. Instead, he and his friends in the corporation found a loophole in the law - a regularised building need not apply for the mandatory fire-safety certificate. Presumably, it is assumed that the act of regularisation includes taking care of all such considerations. But the British who drew up these rules and regulations did not in their simplicity make allowance for Indian ingenuity or the cunning of the new class of businessmen whose money bends or buys up the politicians and civil servants who formally rule the country.

There was a third flaw which, too, is repeated in building after building. Condominium terraces are meant for all residents; the law allows a promoter to sell only a certain percentage of the open space. But many promoters make more money by selling the entire terrace to a rich resident, thereby not only illegally denying the rest of their right to space but also contributing to hazards by blocking off a major point of exit and entry. They may not have sold the Stephen Court terrace which held 10 or so cellphone towers powered by diesel generators which were another fire hazard; instead, they did what was worse by keeping it under lock and key. Tuesday's victims might have escaped the smoke and flames that way but could not.

Seventeen charred bodies were piteously sprawled on the stairs leading to the locked terrace gate. The episode is significant on several counts. It confirmed the criminality of businessmen and builders, exposed the ineffectiveness of Calcutta's police and fire brigade, and reminded us again of the callousness of mayors, ministers and civil servants who collude with promoters. It recalled Churchill's grim warning that "rascals, rogues and freebooters" would take over "the destiny of hungry millions" after independence. The British framed building rules for a specific purpose. Disregarding that objective, today's administrators treat rules only as a means of extortion. Businessmen retaliate by bargaining, and in the haggling that follows no one cares for the original purpose.

If the trend is most pronounced in Calcutta that is only because Calcutta led the way. The first to climb the peak of modernity is also the first to fall. Other cities are waiting to follow that descent.
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Sunanda K Datta-Ray
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